A sturdy biography of Sarah Childress Polk (1803-1891), who revolutionized the amorphous role of first lady while her husband, James, served as president from 1845 to 1849.
By today’s standards, Sarah, who preferred to be known as “Mrs. James Polk” after marrying when she was just 20, was no feminist—of course, women could not vote during her lifetime, nor could they own property in most states—but she always found ways to become a force in electoral politics despite the legal and societal limitations she faced. Born into an enlightened, financially comfortable Tennessee family, Sarah received more formal education than most women of her era and became comfortable conversing about politics in rooms dominated by men who usually excluded women. She originally met James Polk through her older brother. As Greenberg (History and Women’s Studies/Penn State Univ.; A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico, 2012, etc.), a leading scholar of Manifest Destiny, shows, James saw in Sarah not only a domestic partner, but also a behind-the-scenes manager for his political ambitions. His career progressed from the Tennessee legislature to the House of Representatives to the Tennessee governorship to the presidency of the United States when he was age 49. Sarah and James worked together to expand the geographic reach of their nation, waging a bloody war against Mexico to accomplish their goal. James did not desire to build a long-term political dynasty; he promised to serve only a single four-year term. After the presidency, he planned to return to his slaveholding Southern estates to increase the family wealth and enjoy his childless union with Sarah. Instead, he died the year he left the White House. Sarah lived another four decades as a slaveholding businesswomen, never leaving Tennessee even once but also never retreating into isolation. Even during the Civil War, she managed to support the Confederacy while maintaining influence with Union politicians. Though she is largely forgotten, this concise but thorough biography brings her back into the light.
An illuminating study of a nontraditional female powerhouse.